Concept of the Dictionary

The Historisch-kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus (Historical Critical Dictionary of Marxism; HKWM) is a lexicon of terms that is planned to contain 15 volumes and over 1500 entries. Conceived in 1983 on the occasion of the centennial of Marx’s death by Wolfgang Fritz Haug, the first volume of the HCDM was published in 1994 by the Hamburg-based publishing house Argument. Since 1996, it has been an enterprise of the Berlin Institute for Critical Theory and has involved over 800 scholars and activists from around the globe. The editorial board has since been expanded to include Frigga Haug and Peter Jehle (as of vol. 7/I) and Wolfgang Küttler (as of vol. 8/I). The latest volume is 9/I (Machinery/Co-determination, 2018). Volume 9/2 (Compassion/Nazism) has entered its final editorial phase in 2021 and is due out soon. In addition to the printed volumes, which can be consulted in numerous libraries around the world, InkriTpedia offers free access to the trailers of the articles on the Berlin Institute for Critical Theory website.

The spectrum of keywords covered in the HKWM does not include only Marxist lexis in a narrow sense (such as character maskcapitalclass struggle). Basic historical concepts (democracyemancipationdomination/rule), categories of everyday life and emotional history (anxiety/fearsolitude/lonelinesslaughter), debates about art and politics (Faustus debatedomestic labour debateheadscarf debate), political and epistemological metaphors (camera obscuraghost/spectremole), revolutionary history (French RevolutionHaitian RevolutionKronstadt Rebellion), phenomena of mass culture (televisionHollywoodjeans), basic aesthetic concepts (gesturecaricaturemetaphor), historical forms of individuality (courtesanmarket womenbeing a Marxist), Marxist schools and lineages (Brecht schoolcritical psychologyLukács school) or other philosophical tendencies (Darwinismintellectual historyKantianism) – in the dictionary, all of these terms become the subject of historical-critical investigation in light of the questions raised by Marx. Crucially, the articles begin by posing a specific historical problem rather than by providing a timeless definition.

In contrast to the major dictionary projects associated with Reinhart Koselleck’s Basic Concepts in History or Joachim Ritter’s Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, the HKWM pursues a history of concepts in which methods of historical semantics and social history are combined with the framework of critical social theory. This method is intended to avoid the fetish of closed definitions and to illuminate the respective “problematics” that emerge in the mirror of a term “in its genesis, its development, its determination by the historically specific relations of production up to the capitalist and state-socialist ones” (Preface, HKWM 9/I).

The dictionary is suitable for use as a study tool and as a starting point for research on history, philosophy, economics, political and social sciences, gender studies, ecology, aesthetics, or literary studies. It is addressed not only to students and scholars, but also to activists from trade unions, political parties, educational institutions and other organisations within social movements. Since the entries are primarily devoted to terms and categories, the HKWM does not specifically cover the trajectory and work of individual Marxists. Nevertheless, the dictionary grants access to central theses, positions and works of key theorists. On the one hand, references to the latter can be found in the index of names in the volumes. On the other, theoretical traditions named after individuals are an integral part of the dictionary: there are articles on FanonismMariateguismAbendroth School and Gramscianism.

Another special feature of the dictionary are article complexes, which were conceived to treat particular aspects of overarching topics, usually brought together by alphabetical contingency, in separate articles. Thus, the fourth volume, which covers letter “F” and hence “Frau” (German for woman),contains articles on women’s labour/female labourwomen’s labour politicswomen’s movementwomen’s emancipationwomen’s formswomen’s questionwomen’s houseswomen’s language and women’s studies. Similarly, Volume 9/II contains a “Nature Complex” in which lemmas such as nature, alliance with nature, dialectics of nature, domination of nature, excerpts on the natural sciences, fallenness of nature, natural form, natural history, nature conservation, societal nature relations among others, offer insight into a Marxist treatment of pressing ecological issues.

As a dictionary, the HKWM is also a means of international cooperation. With over 800 scholars participating from many countries to date, it represents an important forum for inter- and transnational social movements such as the social-democratic, socialist, and communist lefts and the feminist, ecology and peace movements. The regular HKWM workshops and the annual conferences organised by the Berlin Institute for Critical Theory (InkriT) do not only propel the dictionary project forward, but foster exchange and discussion between different Marxist tendencies in the process. By bringing new voices into conversation, such instances of debate and exchange constantly expand the ongoing project of a theoretical and practical updating of Marxism.